Interview with Eytan Mirsky [CrankyTalk]

On October 22, 2010, I’ll be working with Dan Willis, Dan R. Brown and Adam Polansky to put on the CrankyTalk Workshop in Washington D.C. In the meantime, I’m sharing with you the full interviews that I did with a variety of professionals who do a lot of public speaking / performance as part of their careers, in order to help me gain some insight into how others prepare for their craft.

I “met” Eytan Mirsky more than a handful of years ago after discovering his music and tracking down just about everything I could find by him–I’m a sucker for really strong pop music, and Eytan’s all about that, in a great way. Some of my favorite songs from Eytan are in the “Tao of Steve” soundtrack, but there’s little he’s done that I’ve not been a fan of. He’s also made a few acting appearances (if you saw “American Splendor” he wrote the title track and played it in the movie), and was a perfect candidate to get some information on handling public performances. In unrelated news: one of these days I’ll make the trip to one of Eytan’s live shows and/or I’m going to hold him to letting me sing backing vocals on a track in the future. He clearly doesn’t know of my love for Hootie and the Blowfish or he’d have already been all over this.

Surprisingly — or maybe not surprisingly — most times people are not as aware of any mistakes as you might think. They are not focusing on things the way you (as the performer) are.

Have you ever been at a podium–done a presentation, a reading, played music, where you had to prepare in advance for it? If so, how do you create that presentation (song list, etc.), specifically in the conceptual phase? Maybe a better question is “how do you structure a new song when you’re starting from scratch?”
Yes, I have had to do live shows and present set lists for the shows. First I will pick the songs I want to do at the show. Then I will determine how the show will start and finish then I will try to fill in the material in between. Clearly you don’t want songs that are too similar right next to each other, so I try to mix it up as much as I can. I also try to come up with some clever between-song patter, but I like to keep that somewhat extemporaneous. I really don’t agonize too much about the song order though, to tell you the truth.
How do I structure a new song? In my case, I usually have the overall concept and try to develop that into a chorus that I like. That will basically include both the words and music. (Sometimes the initial concept can be a phrase, so I develop that into a larger idea of what I am trying to say.) At that time usually the overall structure of the song will come to mind in an abstract sense. When the chorus is done I try to come up with verses that will work with the chorus. That is probably the trickiest part. You want the verses to be sufficiently different from the chorus and yet still sound like they were meant for each other. Once the verses and chorus forms are determined I will write the bridge or middle eight, assuming I feel the song needs one. This is another part that gives you a break from the verse-chorus routine and introduces more variety. I often use this to comment in a different way about the topic at hand.
As musician, how do you get into the mindset of “playing live”? That is, as a presenter, I more or less “turn it on” when I’m presenting and know how I do it, but how do you get on stage?
In my own case I try to be as natural as possible. That is kind of my schtick: I am very deadpan. I can’t say whether or not that is satisfying for the audience!  Obviously my persona onstage is somewhat of an exaggeration of my own personality, but it’s not radically different.

What are your “pre-playing” rituals that help you get ready? What about during the performance that keep you in the flow?
My main concern with playing live is that I will forget the songs! I am not that concerned about the lyrics, but I do worry a lot about forgetting the chords of the songs. Obviously, you just need to rehearse so it becomes second nature.  Something about the actual performance seems to focus my mind though, so that I end up not making the mistakes I am worried about making.

I try to do some songs I am most comfortable with in the beginning because I know that if/when those go well I will become more relaxed about things and things will continue to flow more easily.

How do you recover from losing your “flow”–when you maybe choke in the middle of a song, or the moment, when you’re in the middle of a gig?
Surprisingly — or maybe not surprisingly — most times people are not as aware of any mistakes as you might think. They are not focusing on things the way you (as the performer) are. And even if they do notice some little mistake they most likely not going to focus too much on it, especially if they are enjoying the overall performance. Of course if the whole thing becomes a train wreck then that’s a problem. You just have to keep pushing on. You can also make a joke out of the mistake if that suits your performance style. 

How have you combatted stage fright in the past and/or how do you combat it today?  What are the techniques you use–not the whole “see the audience in their underwear” stuff, but the real tricks that make it work for you.
I seriously do not have stage fright. The audience doesn’t bother me at all. Between the songs I just do patter and sometimes talk directly to people in the audience. As I said, the only thing that worries me is that I will forget the words or chords. So I need to focus. But it doesn’t really end up being a problem 99 percent of the time.

About Eytan Mirsky
Eytan MirskyEytan Mirsky is a singer-songwriter best known for his original contributions to film soundtracks, including the title songs for the critically acclaimed films Happiness (sung by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe) and American Splendor (in which he himself appeared singing the theme). He also contributed three songs to the film The Tao of Steve, including the title song and “(I Just Wanna Be) Your Steve McQueen”. Other films to which Mirsky has contributed music are Palindromes, The Company and Desert Blue.  He has put out four CDs: Songs About Girls (& Other Painful Subjects), Get Ready for Eytan!, Was it Something I Said? and Everyone’s Having Fun Tonight!

See also: Eytan Mirsky’s Music at AmazonMP3

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